How Mindfulness Can Bring Healing to Health Care

The crisis of stress and burnout among healthcare workers asks for more than just individual training. Dr. Jonathan Fisher unpacks why we need mindfulness at all levels of the system to create real change.

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Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers around the world have never faced more stress than we are facing today. Even before the COVID pandemic, clinicians balanced the art of healing the sick with the business of practicing medicine, amidst countless third parties including insurance companies, government agencies, and pharmaceutical companies. Along with rapid advancements in health technology and therapeutics, those working in health care are expected to meet the rising requirements for electronic health record documentation, billing, and other non-clinical clerical tasks, on top of rising societal expectations for “quick fixes” and for on-demand provision of affordable and high-quality healthcare. 

The lack of support available to help them navigate this environment has providers feeling as though they can’t keep up. According to most estimates, nearly 50% of doctors in the US are burned out. Many are ready to quit and there is an expected shortage of 120,000 physicians in the US by the year 2030.

As this mental health crisis rages on, there is a rising cry among the healers for a return to the joy, meaning, and connection that initially called them into their chosen profession. Mindfulness can help to achieve this, but not in the way you might think.

Treating Individuals or Shifting Systems?

Traditional “resilience training” offerings directed at healthcare providers included mindfulness training because of its known benefits in helping strengthen self-awareness and self-regulation, while enhancing a sense of ease and well-being. This has been an important start to caring for healthcare workers, yet focusing on individual resilience can become a Band-Aid solution. 

As the cultural understanding of workplace mental health grows more nuanced, there has been a shift in the global conversation around healing the healers—one that places the responsibility for creating and maintaining psychologically safe, supportive environments squarely on the shoulders of organizational leaders. We know that mindfulness training can help individual providers face their everyday challenges with more calm and clarity. But, without a top-down approach to shifting in the often toxic culture in healthcare, sustainable change will remain elusive.

It’s time for health care to reclaim the mantle of modeling optimal ways of caring, beginning by caring for its own caregivers, so that their cups are full, and they can then more lovingly care for the rest of us.

Instead of reflexively encouraging individual healthcare workers to be more mindfully self-aware, leaders can also embrace organizational and systemic mindfulness. Just as a person’s mindfulness practice brings attention and care to every aspect of who they are (the physical body, thoughts, emotions, desires, and experiences), organizational mindfulness views the organization as a unified, organic, living entity. Its policies and processes acknowledge that the well-being and efficacy of the entire “organism” depends upon taking care of each person within the system. 

In this view, the needs and voices of all providers are heard and taken seriously. Institutional shifts would aim to improve quality at every level—the quality of care and support accessible to healthcare workers, equally as much as quality of care for patients. By elevating mindfulness and compassion to the level of the system, we’re able to create organizational cultures that nurture and empower team members to thrive and function at their best.

Change For the Better

What benefits can we expect as institutions begin to practice mindful self-awareness and self-regulation at scale, even while individual caregivers, patients, and leaders train in mindfulness?

Providers will experience better sleep, more engagement in their work, and more skill in navigating difficult conversations. Thanks to a renewed sense of purpose and meaning, their rates of burnout will soon fall. Patients will be more satisfied with their experiences in the healthcare system. As healthcare teams use their renewed capacity toward enhanced teamwork and decision-making, they will ultimately improve patient safety and outcomes, at reduced cost.

Implementing these kinds of mindful strategies will also benefit healthcare leaders. Leaders in other industries have embraced the practice of mindfulness and meditation, with a growing number of Fortune 500 CEOs having a regular contemplative mind-body practice as part of their success strategy. Leaders who practice and train in mindfulness experience improved focus, strategic awareness, decision-making, mastery of core leadership skills relating to emotional intelligence, executive presence, calm, empathy, intuition, and enhanced relationships due to improved communication skills—and that’s even before bringing mindfulness to the systemic level. 

Scientific data supporting the benefits of mindfulness practice for individuals across industries and domains has skyrocketed over the past 40 years, beginning in the realm of clinical practice, then spreading to other sectors including technology, arts, sports, education, and law. It’s time for health care to reclaim the mantle of modeling optimal ways of caring, beginning by caring for its own caregivers, so that their cups are full, and they can then more lovingly care for the rest of us.

What do you think? How does your organization treat the practice of mindfulness? Does your organization as a whole demonstrate mindfulness and compassion? And where gaps exist, what can be done to change that?

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